War Lit 2014: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

On Christmas, the New York Times published two articles on contemporary war literature by Michiko Kakutani, the paper’s premier book critic. One article, titled “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” lists 38 books about Iraq and Afghanistan that Kakutani claims are most worth attention. In the second article, titled “Human Costs of the Forever War, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” Kakutani surveys a number of 21st-century war texts, measures their concerns, and generally celebrates their achievement. Though Kakutani’s focus encompasses war memoir and reportage in addition to fiction and poetry, much of the article and most of the accompanying pictures are devoted to authors of literature. The way these things go, Kakutani’s articles will constitute near-definitive pronouncements about post-9/11 war literature, so let’s chitter-chat about them now.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.
Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.

Everything on the booklist is worthy, but even so it is possible to quibble and argue—that’s the nature of such lists, right? For starters, why 38 books and not 37 or 39, let alone a round number like 35 or 40? The number seems both arbitrary and precisely exact at the same time, as if Kakutani either grew tired of reading at 38 or determined that no way her 39th favorite book about the wars was going to make the final cut. In any case, the list tilts to the recently published or soon-to-be-published, with only occasional citations of books published before 2010. Curiously, her list includes no poetry, specifically no Here, Bullet or Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, the first of which in my opinion is the most important contemporary war lit text of them all and Phantom Noise remaining the second best book of post-9/11 war poetry going (Here, Bullet being first). Kakutani does include Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, no argument there, but overall her list includes seven first-hand accounts of service in Iraq and only one of Afghanistan, and the novels on Kakutani’s list about Afghanistan include three that have not even been released yet—Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, John Renehan’s The Valley, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Omitted, though, is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s 2012 The Watch, which presciently portrayed life on a remote Afghanistan combat outpost, as does a novel that makes Kakutani’s list, Paulo Giordano’s The Human Body, an Italian work only recently published in America. Another Kakutani choice, Lea Carpenter’s novel Eleven Days, portrays Special Operations forces, as do Ackerman’s and Ritchell’s novels, thus contributing to the glamorizing of dark-side operators at the expense of line soldiers who constituted 95% of the deployed military. Finally, Kakutani’s list includes Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, which is great, but as several Times and Twitter commenters have noted, the list is otherwise deficient of Iraq, Afghanistan, or dark-skinned American perspectives.

If Kakutani’s list is idiosyncratic–probably more a compendium of suggestions from friends than the product of a ruthless critical regimen–her essay is excellent—generous, insightful, and eloquent. Kakutani succinctly itemizes the “particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq” as “changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers and, most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (‘the other 1 percent’) and civilians.” By “changes in technology,” we might think of new weaponry such as IEDs, drones, and armored vehicles. Or means of surveillance, such as the pervasive use of signal intercepts by the intelligence community. Or, the communication platforms such as Skype and social media that have allowed deployed service members to remain much more in touch with the homefront than ever before. In regard to the depiction of these things in war fiction, none have been portrayed all that well or extensively and the journalistic coverage hasn’t been so good either, which means there’s a lot of opportunity for future war authors to help us understand them better. The “increased presence of female soldiers” on the battlefield has certainly been a salient component of contemporary war, though, oddly enough, not so much in the fiction Kakutani directs us toward. She also might have said a bit more about the “increased presence” of women in the formerly male-dominated preserve of war-writing itself. Siobhan Fallon, Kayla Williams, Elizabeth Samet, and Lea Carpenter are on Kakutani’s list, and they, along with Katey Schultz, Roxana Robinson, Helen Benedict, Hilary Plum, Cara Hoffman, Mariette Kalinowski, and others, constitute a significant new cultural phenomenon that complements the shifting nature of military demographics. But Kakutani is right on the money by asserting that the all-volunteer military and the civil-military chasm have been huge abiding concerns in the American war effort and the literature written about it. The issue goes way beyond simple fretting over how to thank soldiers for their service or worrying about PTSD, though those are important subjects oft written on. As Stacey Peebles argues in Welcome to the Suck, the story of every contemporary soldier saga is that of internal battle between competing senses of soldierly and civilian identity: How does being a soldier—killer, cog-in-the-machine, hero, patriot—jibe with the softer and more fluid civilian values and characteristics one brings into the military, never fully abandons while in, and then attempts to reclaim when out? The ailment Peebles diagnosed in a small number of works in 2011 is the essential tribulation defining almost every title in Kakutani’s literary corpus.

A section titled “Capturing a War’s Rhythm” is full of claims central to war literature. For instance, Kakutani explores the attraction of the short story for contemporary war writers. She writes, “Short stories, authors have realized, are an ideal form for capturing the discontinuities of these wars, their episodic quality, and so are longer, fragmented narratives that jump-cut from scene to scene.” She then traces a geneology of war lit that starts with the death-soaked collapse of idealism of World War I poets, the black humor of World War II authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, the charred stoicism of Michael Herr and the magical realism of Tim O’Brien, Vietnam-era authors read by everyone writing war lit today, and finds its modern voice in Iraq blog-writing by Colby Buzzell and Matt Gallagher. Kakutani also grounds the modern war lit boom in the MFA program and veterans support workshop scenes—both being fruitful incubators for storytelling talent. Finally, she ponders whether war fiction has adequately responded to larger political and ethical questions. How have authors represented Afghan and Iraqi “others” in a new global era marked by respect for diversity and concern for “nation-building,” impulses that have been met with implacable contempt by our opponents and soiled by our own nation’s new found regard for torture? These are all subjects and ideas I’ve toyed with in Time Now, but Kakutani has brought an outsider’s eye to the body of evidence and incisively and concisely articulated its importance.

Kakutani’s list and essay join two other great surveys of contemporary war literature published in 2014: George Packers’ New Yorker article “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars” and Brian Castner’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play.” Read them all, again, bookmark them on your computer, and let’s use them as guides as we consider the war fiction, poetry, memoir, and reportage 2015 will bring us.

A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.
A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.

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